Only the Astronauts

Ceridwen Dovey

Only the Astronauts
Penguin Random House Australia
7 May 2024

Only the Astronauts

Ceridwen Dovey

Adrift in outer space, a motley crew of human-made objects tell their tales, making real history sweeter and stranger.

Starman, a lovelorn mannequin orbiting the Sun in his cherry-red car, pines for his creator. The first sculpture ever taken to the Moon is possessed by the spirit of Neil Armstrong. The International Space Station, awaiting deorbit and burial in a spacecraft cemetery beneath the ocean, farewells its last astronauts. A team of tamponauts sets off on a perilous mission to Mars inspired by the courage of their predecessors. The Voyager 1 space probe – carrying its precious Golden Record – is captured by Oortians near the edge of the solar system and drawn into their baroque, glimmering rituals.

By turns joyous and mournful, these object-astronauts are not high priests of the universe but something a little . . . weirder. From their inverted perspectives, they observe humans both intimately and from a great distance, bearing witness to a civilisation unable to live up to its own ideals. And yet each still finds in our planet – in their humans – something worthy of love.


What do we owe the objects we send into space? This might seem like a strange question to ask, but after reading the five heartfelt stories of Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Astronauts, it’s a question at the forefront of my mind. From the colossal International Space Station to the comical hundred-strong host of Original Space Tampons, the things we choose to become space-travellers alongside us reflect upon humanity and, for Dovey, have their own stories to tell.

In ‘Requiem’ the ISS, on the eve of its fiery decommissioning, fondly reminisces about the many astronauts who called it home, carrying the reader through a flurry of anecdotes, both trivial and poignant, that build a picture of lives truly lived among the stars. Similarly pensive is ‘The Fallen Astronaut’, a story which fuses Neil Armstrong’s spirit with the titular sculpture to produce a meditation on the moon and our history with it.

Yet where Only the Astronauts is most powerful is in the stories where Dovey almost dares you to care, reckoning with the absurd until she finds something beautiful. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘We The Tamponauts’ – yes, that neologism is short for tampon astronauts – which begins as an almost laughably didactic feminist parable, before steadily drawing you into a genuinely thrilling and resonant tale of ambition and sacrifice. Likewise, in ‘Starman’, a thwarted love between Elon Musk and the mannequin he sent into space threatens to fall into satirical flatness but doggedly resists it in favour of an earnestness that cannot help but move you, reflecting the ethos of radical sincerity at the heart of each and every story.

Returning to the question that opened this review, Dovey’s stories suggest that what we owe these object astronauts is a voice, however metaphorical, with which to observe humanity and allow us to love and understand ourselves better.

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